BOURNE — The search for striped bass starts early.
At 3:30 a.m. East End Eddie, wearing a headlamp and clutching two fishing poles, carefully maneuvers down the slick wet rocks toward the Big Ditch and its black swirling waters.
Eddie Doherty, 65, is a certified “canal rat,” a lifelong surfcaster. He is a retired clerk-magistrate of the Wrentham District Court who now holds court on the banks of the Cape Cod Canal.
On this day nobody is catching anything. Not even the No-See-Ums are biting, let alone the schools of stripers.
“They are social distancing,” says Eddie, a jovial character who always wears a smile.
For the grandfather of four (and a fifth on the way), the beginning of striper season is simply heaven.
The veteran angler lives in Mattapoisett, close to his fishing paradise.
“I used to drive from North Attleborough at about 2 o’clock in the morning and fish, come home, take a shower and be in the courtroom by 8:30,“ he says.
There is a distinct similarity between the people he sees in the court and on the Canal.
“I kind of went from listening to people lie to me for a living to listen to fishermen lie to me about how big the fish was that they got,'' he says. “Every time they tell somebody a story, the fish seems to get a little bigger.”
Every day, Doherty wears grips on his boots to navigate the seaweed on the riprap and has a finger guard to protect his casting hand — he can easily toss a lure more than halfway across the fast-moving canal. On his waist belt, he wears pliers to make catch and release as quick as a pit stop at Indy.
He’s been fishing the Big Ditch since going with his grandfather when he was 6 years old. His favorite spots are in the East End (thus his nickname) but he knows every inch of the 7-mile service road that lines the canal.
This morning, his intelligence report says that schools of stripers are gathering in Buzzards Bay and about to funnel into the canal on their northward migration from the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River. He says the water temperature, which is in the mid-50s, needs to be a little warmer. They like waters between 55 and 68, he says.
Other fishermen routinely seek him out for advice.
“Anything?” says a man walking behind him on the service road.
“Nothing,” says Doherty, pausing. “Not yet.”
Doherty keeps things positive. He believes this is the best striper fishing on the East Coast.
“It’s deep water, 32-feet deep, minimum,“ he says. “There aren’t many places in the world where you can cast into water that deep without a boat.”
Fishing from a boat is prohibited in the Big Ditch, but East End Eddie knows how to move quickly by bicycle. He keeps his “Canal bike” close, with rod holders, three baskets, and a tiny American flag, all ready to roll.
’Did I tell you about the time . . .’
Eddie, a natural storyteller, is an encyclopedia of information. He keeps no fishing secrets; he shares them in his book, “Seven Miles after Sundown.”
“There’s a lot of camaraderie here,” he says, “and a lot of good humor.”
As he sends his favorite 5-ounce Bill Hurley Canal Killer lure seaward, he recounts a tale from days past.
“This guy takes his girlfriend fishing on the canal and she gets stuck like so many people do,'' Eddie begins "So she’s tugging away and her boyfriend comes over to help her.
“ ’Oh, my God,’ he says, faking concern. 'You’ve hooked the plug!’
‘What the heck is that?’ she exclaims. He proceeds with a straight face to tell her that there’s a plug in the middle of the canal, and if she pulls it open the Big Ditch will run dry. He says it is a $500 fine and they better split before the cops come.
“ ’I’m so sorry, I didn’t even know there was a plug out there,’ “ she says sheepishly.
Eventually they had a good laugh over it, says Eddie, who calls the canal “the world’s largest lead depository,” because of the sinkers and lures that are buried among the rocks on the bottom.
Eddie always cleans any speck of seaweed off his lure or line. He remembers the advice his old friend and journalist Charley Soares told him
“Fish don’t eat salad,” he said.
He has caught and released up to 20 keeper stripers in a day, but sometimes he gets careless. Once he accidentally hooked himself through his middle finger. Another fisherman quickly came to his aid. Still bleeding, he was driving himself to the emergency room at Tobey Hospital in Wareham when he saw the lights on at Cape Cod Charlie’s Bait & Tackle. Mike Peterson took some cutting pliers, removed the hook, cleaned it, and taped it tightly.
His pants smeared in blood, Eddie immediately returned to the scene of the crime and continued fishing. When he got home, his daughter, Christine, a registered nurse, was bewildered that he had chosen a bait shop over a hospital.
“ ‘Doctor’ Peterson did a great job and there wasn’t even a co-pay,” he said.
On this morning, Dan McKay, who walks the Canal daily, stops to chat.
“He’s one of my scouts,“ Eddie says. “If the tide is going the same way as he’s walking, he’s going to tell me about fish that are coming my way.”
Time and rules are changing
Sadly, Doherty says the old guard is disappearing, replaced by others who don’t follow either the local etiquette or state regulations.
This year the rules are changing. Fishermen can only take one striper a day of at least 28 inches, but less than 35 inches.
Sometimes when Eddie hooked a cow (as the big fish are called), he’d deliver it to Sister Rose’s House, a homeless shelter in New Bedford. Now he can’t do that.
Last year the Massachusetts Environmental Police seized more than 50 striped bass, issued nearly $8,000 in citations, and made one arrest.
From the banks of the Big Ditch he has seen whales, hawks, seals, and mink.
“You see everything,” he says.
He loves the lapping of the water, the sing song of the birds, and the beauty of the predawn.
“I love it because it’s peaceful, especially when there’s not a lot of people around,'' he says.
After getting shut out in the West End, Eddie moves back to the East End on another spring morning. Pole 80 to be exact.
At 4 a.m., the Sagamore Bridge is buried in fog. East End Eddie can hear a seal grunting nearby but he can’t see it.
With a flick of the wrist he sends his white lure with the hook on top halfway across the canal.
“We see seals all the time. They're my competitors. They eat 100 pounds of striper a day.”
One day he saw a bleeding seal that had just been bitten by a shark, curled up on the shore. He called a seal rescue group.
“I had mixed feelings though,” he says. “I'm thinking he's going to get better and eat all my stripers.”
But so far, despite due diligence, East End Eddie has been shut out.
The blueness of the morning light, and slack tide sends some fishermen back to their vehicles, done for the day.
He’s talking about missing baseball when his pole bends and his line screams and his face lights up. He sets the hook and reels it in. It’s an early season striper, not a keeper, but it doesn’t matter.
East End Eddie is all smiles as he watches the striper do a little dance as it flaps its tail and vanishes back into the deeper water.
“He’s happy, and I’ll catch him again when he gets bigger,” he says.
Someday, after his final cast, East End Eddie wants his ashes scattered in the Big Ditch, floating out to Buzzards Bay on a west tide to meet the arrival of incoming stripers in the spring.
“It was here or the land of Yastrzemski, left field at Fenway,” he says.
He had a police officer in Boston willing to surreptitiously do the deed.
“But my kids vetoed that,” he says. “They didn’t want to be sitting there and eating a hot dog and thinking about the old man.”
To Doherty, the Big Ditch is the best place on earth.
“It’s the place where you can just relax, empty your mind, breathe in the salty air, and cast out into the ripping tide.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.